By Garry Smits, GateHouse Media Services
AUGUSTA, GA. | The last two chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club were former SEC football players: Billy Payne (Georgia) and Hootie Johnson (South Carolina).
On Wednesday, a former Florida Gator golfer met the media for the first time since taking over for Payne last fall.
Fred Ridley conducted his first Masters week news conference, traditionally the only time the chairman of the club fields questions. Ridley, a 65-year-old Tampa real estate lawyer, former president of the United States Golf Association and the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion, is the seventh Augusta National chairman and the first to have won a major amateur golf title.
“They’re passing it around the conference,” said Buddy Alexander, the former UF golf coach who has been a lifelong friend of Ridley’s ever since they played junior golf together in Orlando. “It’s great to have a Gator in there.”
Ridley, a Lakeland native, cited a personal history with the club that went back to 1976 when he played as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.
“I begin the most significant chapter in my lifelong connection to the game of golf,” Ridley said in his opening statement. “I accept the responsibility with humility, with a determination to pursue the principles established by our founders and I believe fully prepared to lead this organization as we explore new and impactful ways to impact the game of golf.”
Ridley also is the first Augusta National chairman to have played in the Masters. He qualified three times, missed the cut every time, but is now poised to make more of an impact than any player could.
And he hit the ground running, announcing the first Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship, to begin in 2019.
“The chairmanship of Augusta National certainly gives him a unique place in the game,” said Jim Hyler, who now has Ridley’s old job as chairman of the Masters competition committee.
Ridley faces several issues, including curbing distance, the possibility of a “Masters tournament” ball and membership policies.
He said any involvement by Augusta National in issues that affect the game would be done in concert with the world’s governing bodies, such as the USGA and the Royal and Ancient – for example, the question of how much golf’s power brokers should do to limit how far golfers at the highest levels hit the ball.
“We have had a very good relationship, not only with governing bodies but with the other organizations in golf for many years,” he said. “I think that our opinions are received, respectfully, and I think that dialogue will continue as this issue evolves. It really goes back to the founders’ belief that Augusta National and the Masters had an obligation to contribute back to the game and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Ridley also brings a new perspective to his job, that of having been a highly skilled player. He never turned professional and was the last U.S. Amateur champion to not take that option.
“I don’t know that being a great player will affect his decision-making,” Alexander said. “But I don’t know how it could hurt. I think there might be occasions where having been a competitor will give him a little different perspective. Either way, I think Fred will do an outstanding job.”